Why being in the zone is good for our mental health.
Think back to a time when you were so absorbed in a task that time flew without you noticing. A beautiful merging with the moment and movement that leaves you lost in the doing. This is called ‘flow’ or sometimes ‘being in the zone’. A state of complete immersion whereby your skill is matched to the task at hand and carried out with complete focus.
Mihály Csíkszentmihályi first defined the positive psychology concept of “flow” after interviewing artists who would be so immersed in their work they would forget about eating, sleeping or even showering. All other aspects of life dissolve as the task at hand and the person applying themselves become merged as one. Imagine a woodcutter splitting wood. Taking each piece of wood to the block and turning to exactly the right angle before raising the axe and driving with perfect force through the log. Breathing, posture, visual assessment and movement perfectly choreographed. Watching somebody in flow can be a joy to behold. A musician or singer lost in their piece or swimmer gliding through the water with both speed and strength.
Csíkszentmihályi once described flow as ‘being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved and you’re using your skill to the utmost’.
You cannot be in flow when anxious or depressed, yet encouraging absorption through activity can be the answer to eroding intrusive thoughts, negative focus and preoccupation with self. A flow state is a moment to moment experience that negates worrying about the future or negatively reflecting on the past.
The key is to engage in a activity you are good at. Your skill is matched to the task at hand. This enables the merging between moment and movement with a clear goal and process. The person feels capable and in control without the self-consciousness attached to learning something new. Whilst flow is very much a personal prescription here are some ideas to get into the zone.
- Baking or cooking a tried and tested recipe or following something within your capabilities.
- Crafting (something achievable and enjoyable) Sitting with stitching, knitting or decoupage. Anything that involves creativity and manual movement, leading to an outcome that isn’t too taxing.
- Running, cycling or walking. Setting a comfortable pace and taking a route you know well. Allowing the breath, movement and environment to merge can lead to wonderful flow states.
- Meditative physical activity such as yoga, martial arts or tai chi.
- DIY can be deeply immersive such as painting or sanding
- Writing or drawing can be flow activities. An adult colouring book can also work well. Simply staying within the lines of a complex pattern is both achievable yet needs focus.